Time is running out and tensions are running high at the bottom of the Premier League – and that’s not just in the home dressing room at The Hawthorns. Whatever may or may not have happened after West Brom conceded a late equaliser to Cardiff at the weekend, it just further highlights that not many of the clubs involved in this incredible relegation dogfight are doing themselves any favours and perhaps that’s what is making it exciting.
In previous seasons, Wigan Athletic were part of the equation. Given their ability to make the most remarkable of relegation escapes, all their rivals knew what they were up against. Now, with The Latics finally dropping out of the top flight last season, the scrap has a different feel to it. Most of the teams involved have had a turbulent and catastrophic season and none of them could complain if they fell beneath the dotted line at the end of the 38th game given the fact that many of their problems have been self-inflicted.
Most of them have changed managers, one of them more than once, and hardly any of these appointments have paid off. Tony Pulis has managed to take Crystal Palace from being doomed to having a real chance of survival. Sunderland have improved under Gus Poyet, but surely they couldn’t have got any worse after Paolo Di Canio’s troubled tenure. Other than that, the hiring and firing which has taken place in the Premier League hasn’t had a positive effect for any of the teams.
Fulham’s gamble in sacking Martin Jol and replacing him with an inexperienced Rene Meulensteen didn’t pay off but neither has the subsequent appointment of the vastly experienced Felix Magath. After two managerial changes, Fulham’s chances of survival haven’t improved. In fact they’re probably worse off and have, to some extent, dug their own grave. If The Cottagers were to extend their stay in the Premier League, it’d have to be the greatest escape of all time.
Cardiff (or more appropriately Vincent Tan) have more or less done the same. Cardiff under Malky Mackay were not exactly pulling up trees in the Premier League but surely their hopes of survival were much greater with him in charge than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian, whilst appearing to have the potential to become a good Premier League manager one day, has been left with an almost impossible task of resurrecting a club in turmoil. A sinking ship. Therefore, rather like Meulensteen, he’s appeared out of his depth.
However, even what’s happened in South Wales has somehow been trumped by the madness that has happened behind the scenes at West Brom. First, Nicolas Anelka’s controversial goal celebration which has seen the Frenchman banned and the club’s shirt sponsorship deal collapse. Then they decided, for whatever reason, to sell Shane Long in January to Hull City. Then there was the alleged bust-up in the dressing room in the aftermath of The Baggies’ dropping two vital points in stoppage time to Cardiff. And all of these events unfolding after the knee-jerk sacking of Steve Clarke. The tenure of Pepe Mel hasn’t gone very well either, with just one win from ten games.
In fact the only club currently in the bottom six who still have the same manager from the start of the season is Norwich and many neutrals see this as an advantage. Whilst the pressure on Chris Hughton has been relentless, and rightly so given the number of lacklustre displays and heavy defeats which have kept Norwich perilously close to the bottom three throughout the entire campaign, The Canaries’ decision not to follow their relegation rivals in sacking their manager could prove to be the difference for them in the relegation battle. The Norwich hierarchy had one obvious chance to part company with Hughton, and that was after the 7-0 thrashing at Manchester City in November. As a Norwich fan myself, I felt it was time for a change and I still feel that way. However, by not doing so we might just have given ourselves a better chance of staying up. Had Norwich have gone down the same route and dispersed with Hughton mid-season, we might well have ended up in a similar mess.
It’s been a very poor season for Norwich and they’ve been just as poor as the rest of the teams in the mire but of all the teams in immediate danger, they can be more optimistic about their chances of staying up. Norwich’s problems are only on-pitch problems – struggling to score goals, putting in dismally poor performances away from home, etc. However, as Wigan proved time and time again, it’s very possible to transform your fortunes on the pitch when it’s really needed regardless of how deficient you may seem to be. The rest of the teams battling the drop are having to address many more problems and these could be decisive in the final reckoning. However, I would still rather not see Hughton stay on as Norwich manager over the summer.